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Spring Training: A Cautionary Tale

Kevin Nielsen encourages fellow fantasy GM's to exercise caution and not overreact to spring training statistics.

Francisco Liriano during his impressive 2012 Spring Training.
Francisco Liriano during his impressive 2012 Spring Training.

There were months of preparation. Late nights were spent on projections, rankings, research. So many times I felt like I was looking for something that was not there. Some edge, anything that could set me apart from the rest. About a year ago I had tentatively made final many of my decisions and assessments. They were each recorded, ever so carefully, in computer files, a hand-written notebook, over-sized dry-erase board, and my own focused mind. Then spring training arrived. Additional statistics would be recorded and updated online after each game. There now was new information at my disposal, a new set of statistics to dig deeper into.

Last season I decided I was ready for my biggest fantasy challenge yet, the NFBC Main Event. I knew that all of the GM's who decide to fork over $1500+ to take part in the competition do their research. Most of them would know as much and possibly more than me about every "sleeper" there was. This was comparable to an upper-minors player making his way to MLB. It was only natural for a first-timer such as me to have some desire to find an equalizer. I strived to find something extra to allow me to have success right away. Whereas a real-life baseball player might have sought PED's, during spring training I was searching for value-enhancing statistics and information. I was searching for some reason, during the spring, to move a player up my draft board that would perhaps not be noticed by my fellow league members or had not been there to be taken advantage of by members of the leagues that would draft weeks before mine.

By the time draft day came, one player clearly stood out to me. This pitcher has great "stuff", certainly enough to have true ace potential. He has also shown flashes of his upside at the MLB level despite his history of command issues and injury problems. 2009 was his first full-season in MLB after having Tommy John surgery in November of 2006.


136.2 IP

5.80 ERA

1.55 WHIP

122 K

65 BB


191.2 IP

3.62 ERA

1.26 WHIP

201 K

58 BB


134.1 IP

5.09 ERA

1.49 WHIP

112 K

75 BB

2012 Spring

27 IP

2.33 ERA

1.11 WHIP

33 K

5 BB

Clearly, when Francisco Liriano avoids problems with his walk-rate he has the ability to be a valuable fantasy commodity. Most reports coming out last spring about Liriano had pegged him as looking impressive and having a decent chance to revert back to his 2010 statistics after a high walk-rate doomed his 2011 season. This became my fantasy. To be able to pick Liriano at a spot in my draft where he would be of surplus value if he could put a year together like his 2010 or even more. I ended up picking Liriano in the 11th round of my 15-team NFBC Main Event draft. Chris Sale, Jeremy Hellickson, and Jordan Zimmerman had been the last 3 SP's off the board. Ubaldo Jimenez, Ervin Santana, and Johan Santana would be the next 3 SP's taken after my Liriano pick. It seemed like a reasonable spot for a guy with great upside and who possibly had solved his command issues.

We all know how this story ends. He hadn't solved his command issues. Not even close. There is no need for me to explain the irreversible harm Liriano caused to my ERA and WHIP in the weeks I played him. My desire to gain an edge had caused me to stray from months of research to pay too much attention to a small sample size and some glowing reports. I had moved a SP who was outside of my top 80 SP into my top 50 SP. This was a huge disaster. I had some bad luck elsewhere on my roster, so fortunately Liriano wasn't the sole reason for my NFBC failure, but he certainly did not help.

2012 was a great year for me. I won every other league I was in except for my NFBC league. This includes both of my dynasty leagues and 4 single-season leagues. However, the biggest lesson I learned was from this Liriano situation. I'm naturally a very skeptical person and I went against that. The fact that players are facing inferior competition at times along with the small sample size of the spring training schedule has made me reinforce my approach and belief that it's important not to throw away a lot of hard work and analysis because of one month of statistics. Sometimes all the edge you need is to stick with your guns and approach things with your normal evaluation process. If I had done that I can't help but to think that things would have been different. After all, my normal process had been what made me value Jon Niese as one of the biggest sleepers in my 2012 drafts. I ended up picking him in the 18th round of that NFBC draft and owning him in a few other leagues as well. The decision to value him more than the majority of my fellow GM's had nothing to do with his spring statistics.

Well, it's about that time again. Soon the games are going to begin and statistics will be recorded. I encourage you to exercise caution. Over the course of the next 6 weeks or so you are going to be shown many mirages of improvement or regression. I encourage you to stick to your recent player projections and, for the most part, with your rankings. Don't get me wrong, there will be players that should appropriately be moved up or down your rankings. Some players will emerge as the winner of a closer competition, an injury risk, or the beneficiary of an improved lineup spot. These are the things to take notice of and make adjustments for, among a few others. Be confident and good luck.